Season in Review: 2016 Great Falls Voyagers

After missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years last season, The Voyagers were back with a vengeance in 2016, running away with the best record in the Pioneer League. Great Falls started off slowly in the first half (21-17), but was nearly unstoppable in the second half of the season; finishing with a record of 26-11 and running off 15 consecutive wins near the end of the season. Unfortunately for the Voyagers, all that momentum evaporated as they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Billings Mustangs. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic season for the team as a whole and there was some very encouraging individual performances for young impact prospects.

If you would like a reference on the Great Falls season outlook, check out the 2016 Season Preview article.

Pitching

Former journeyman White Sox prospect Matt Zaleski spent 11 seasons in the White Sox organization without reaching the majors, but may have found his true calling in coaching. The Arlington Heights, Illinois native guided the Great Falls pitching staff to an unbelievable year collectively, leading the Pioneer League in nearly every statistical category, including ERA (3.54), WHIP (1.15), strikeouts. shutouts, and the least amount of walks, hits, and home runs allowed. And it was historic too, as the 3.54 team ERA was the lowest the Pioneer League has seen since 2003.

If you would like to hear more about Hansen, Solorzano and some of the bullpen arms from Zaleski himself, check out our recent FutureSox interview.

The most notable and dominant of Zaleski’s pupils was 2016 2nd round draft pick Alec Hansen. After a short stint with the AZL Sox, Hansen hit Great Falls on July 13th and was magnificent, compiling a 1.23 ERA over 36.2 innings while striking out 59 batters and only allowing 12 hits. Additionally, Hansen seemed to solve his control issues that plagued him in college, issuing just 12 walks. Unfortunately for the Voyagers championship aspirations, Hansen was promoted to Kannapolis on August 23rd. I expect Hansen to start 2017 in either Kannapolis or Winston-Salem, with an outside shot at Birmingham if the White Sox are feeling especially aggressive.

While Hansen was a brilliant mercenary for the Voyagers over seven starts, the backbone of the Great Falls rotation was three starters who spent the majority of the season in Montana. 19 year-old Yosmer Solorzano was a bit inconsistent with his results, but when he was on he was unhittable. Solorzano finished the season strong with two no-hitters (7 IP, 1 BB, 8 K and 5 IP, 1 BB, 9 K) and had a shortened complete game (5 H, ER, 0 BB, 10 K) in his last four starts of the season. Solorzano ended up having a very respectable 81/18 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 81 innings and though he was hit around a bit (85 H, .265 AVG), he only allowed one home run all season.

2015 15th round pick Christopher Comito started the year in Kannapolis, but ended up leading the Voyagers in innings pitched. The 20 year-old put up very solid numbers in Great Falls: 3.43 ERA over 86.2 innings with 89 strikeouts, and 15 walks and 71 hits allowed.  Comito has good size (6’6”, 240) and a live arm, so hoping for better results at Kannapolis in 2017.

Historically, the chances of a undrafted free agent making much of a impact as a prospect is slim, but Aron McRee is off to a great start to try to beat the odds. The former D-II hurler spun a 2.16 ERA over 66.2 innings and had a perfect 5-0 record to earn the Pioneer League Pitcher of the Year award. McRee didn’t strike out a ton of batters (54 K’s) but was pinpoint with his control, only issuing six walks.

2016 7th round pick Bernardo Flores out of University of Southern California was eased into pro ball by making eleven starts with Great Falls. Flores had a solid opening campaign, posting a 3.66 ERA over 59 innings, striking out 45 and walking 12. Chicago native Adam Panayotovich had a 4.26 ERA over six starts and 16 total appearances. and fellow UDFA Fernando Gallegos had a 2.33 ERA working mostly from the bullpen.

Aside from Panayotovich and Gallegos, the Voyagers bullpen was mostly built from the later rounds of the 2016 draft class. Micheal Horejsei, a 21st round draft pick out of Ohio State, breezed through 12.2 scoreless innings and 16th round pick Ben Wright threw 7.1 shutout innings before both were quickly promoted to Kannapolis. In their stead, the Voyagers received 20th round pick Matt Foster, who dominated serving as Great Falls closer, saving six games and allowing no earned runs on just a single hit over 11.1 innings. The Voyagers also received DSL product Jaider Rocha, who was demoted from Kannapolis and posted a 2.55 ERA over 24.2 innings. 2016 15th round pick Jake Elliott spent all of his first professional season with the Voyagers and had a 4.30 ERA over 37.2 innings while striking out 45 and only walking 9.

Offense

While the 2016 draft class was a boost for the arms of the Voyagers, it really shined  in the lineup for the Great Falls offense. The White Sox loaded up the Voyagers with many of their top offensive draft picks, highlighted by 3rd round pick Alex Call and 4th rounder Jameson Fisher. Call was fantastic with Great Falls before hitting his way to Kannapolis, slashing .308/.444/.439 with four stolen bases. Fisher had even better numbers with his bat, .342/.436/.487, but he stayed in Great Falls to work on his outfield defense. Fisher had never previously played the outfield before the Sox converted him and he experienced two minor shoulder injuries trying to make defensive plays. If you would like to hear more about Fisher’s incredible story from the source, check out his exclusive FutureSox interview.

While Call and Fisher’s big numbers were expected against rookie ball level pitchers, Great Falls found some unexpected production from a player taken much later in the draft. Aaron Schnurbusch was selected in the 28th round as a senior out of the University of Pittsburgh. He did not put up great numbers there and there was some question if the Sox would try him as a pitcher, since he was a two-way player in his early college years. So it was a bit surprising when Schnurbusch came out on fire and maintained a .400 average into August.  He cooled off a bit from there, but still ended the season with an incredible .357/.471/.542 line and added 19 stolen bases for good measure. If you are wondering what Schnurbusch’s fantastic professional debut might mean for his future prospects, Matt Cassidy wrote an article about the predictive power of Pioneer League stats.

Schnurbusch was not the only productive late draft pick on the Voyagers. Brady Conlan, taken in the 24th round out of D-II Cal State Dominguez Hills, slashed .281/.321/.431 and 22nd round pick Joel Booker added a .328/.421/.416 slash-line when he joined Great Falls on August 4th. Booker also showed off excellent speed, playing center field and stealing 41 bases between Great Falls and the AZL while only being caught three times. 12th round pick SS Mitch Roman spent the whole year with the Voyagers and hit .332/.392/.418.

While the 2016 draft class led the charge, there were a couple of players repeating Great Falls who were key contributors. Corey Zangari, a 2015 6th round pick, struggled mightily to start the year in Kannapolis. He joined Great Falls in June and had a solid year, hitting .257/.330/.426 and improving as he went along . Zangari bashed 15 home runs between Kanny and Great Falls over just 110 games, showing off his plus plus power as a 19-year old. Another high 2015 draft pick Casey Schroeder followed a similar track as Zangari, started the year over-matched at Kannapolis before dropping to the Voyagers. Schroeder hit .260/.329/.487 splitting time between catcher and DH. He shared the catching duties with international signee Carlos Perez and 2016 8th round pick Nate Nolan. Both struggled offensively, but it should be noted that Carlos Perez caught both of Yosmer Solorzano’s no-hitters and was praised for his pitch calling and defense.

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